France Must Practice a Politics of the Possible

Paul Seaton, "France Must Practice a Politics of the Possible," Library of Law and Liberty, October 13, 2016.


At the beginning of his career, Pierre Manent spoke of political philosophy’s “healing light.” Likewise, he pointed to Cicero as a classical model of a philosophically informed citizen who could speak to princes and peoples alike about matters of public concern. His modern-day model was his teacher, Raymond Aron. After a period of apprenticeship, then a steady stream of works of political philosophy, Manent himself entered the civic conversation. Beyond Radical Secularism is his most recent contribution, appearing in French as Situation de France in 2015. It is well translated by Ralph Hancock, with a magisterial introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney. Once again, St. Augustine’s Press is to be commended for making outstanding contemporary French thought and thinkers available.

On the one hand, the work is a continuation of long-time Manentian themes and theses. These include the parlous depoliticization of Europe, as states relinquish essential political instrumentalities, and the political class lend their minds and voices to humanitarian fantasies and inanities. What is new in Beyond Radical Secularism is the explicit attention given to the presence of Muslim communities in France and other European countries, and the form of thinking that Manent engages in: political deliberation. Its motivating question is quite practical, even urgent:  what needs to be done by states and Muslims, especially the French state and French Muslims, so that the latter become integrated members of the body-politic?

Here old and new concerns encounter. A depoliticized politics (to employ a paradoxical phrase), one that conceives of everything under the dual rubrics of secularism and human rights, cannot adequately engage the community in its midst that does not define itself in contemporary liberal and secular terms. Therefore, the first order of business is to lift the scales from the eyes of politicians and citizens alike, and to find an adequate language to describe reality. Hence too the first striking feature of this compact book: one hears a truly independent voice. And what is more, a civic voice, the voice of a citizen concerned about the res publica.

To be sure, this civic voice is also that of a political philosopher. Therefore, it possesses exceptional richness and depth. Manent’s core notion of “deliberation,” for example, is deeply Aristotelian. And his deliberation brings in decades of reflections upon the nature and course of Western civilization, the nature of the liberal representative state, the modern nation, and Christianity’s rather complex relationship to all of them. This is no ordinary citizen! Still, here he thinks about a particular situation in order to deliberate about means to an end, to propose what needs to be done to make France a viable political whole.

As is appropriate for a political proposal, there are sacrifices to be made by all parties. Put rather flatly, in the way that a journalistic account might, Manent’s proposals amount to the following:  Radical secularists and those who hew to a naked public square view of la République will have to recognize the “otherness” of French Muslims and grant them public status as Muslims, with their distinctive self-understanding and the majority of their distinctive, that is, non-western, customs. Note well: the majority, not the entirety. Muslims for their part will have to give up the practice of polygamy and the burqa. The veiling of the human face denies the willingness for self-disclosure inherent in civic friendship, while monogamy is the law of the land, part of the tacit compact Muslim immigrants accepted when they came to Europe. Symmetrically, secularists will have to give up the hope that Muslims will become “just like them,” assimilated late-modern liberals, while Muslims will have to put away the attitude of victimhood and accept the risks of democratic public life, including that of being criticized.

But the most characteristically Manentian proposal, because the most political, is that the French state act as a state and require French Muslims to choose decisively for France as their political community, by eschewing the material support of Muslims countries for the funding of mosques and charitable organizations. This would declare their “material and moral independence” from foreign sovereignties, registering them as decided members of the French body-politic. In keeping with the nature of the regime, this would only be done after candid and delicate negotiations about its modalities, and French Muslims would have to consent to the order. In the event they refuse, the reality of their presence in France would become clear to all. His basic thought is that French Muslims have heretofore not been asked to act as citizens: this would be their belated opportunity, an explicit beginning of their self-conscious participation in the French adventure as full and fellow citizens.

Some have mistaken Manent’s proposal as an application or even extension of the venerable French tradition of laicité. His proposals to accommodate Muslims as Muslims should give pause to that view. In this connection, he makes a distinction between secularity and secularism. The former is invaluable and central to a free society, the latter is ideological and part of the problem. The former rightly separates government and religion, the latter not only wants a naked public square but a dereligiousized society (including “reformed,” privatized Muslims). Secularism is a vain illusion, benighted and baneful, and must be dispelled. But according to Manent even secularity needs to be reworked in the light of the new circumstances confronting the body-politic. Accommodations to Muslims’ dietary restrictions in public schools and sex-segregated swimming hours seem reasonable modifications to him. This is not the letter or spirit of Jules Ferry’s law of 1905.

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